Rocking voters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 12:00am

With Taiwan's presidential election only two days away, the casual observer might think everyone is sick of reading stories about this election. People may think the novelty of voting must have worn off here, 10 years after Taiwanese won the right to trudge down to the local polling booth, stand in line and vote for tweedle-dee or tweedle-dum. But Taiwanese are not jaded with democracy.

Conventional political wisdom holds that mature democracies have low participation rates. In the cliff-hanger in the US in 2000, only 51 per cent of the electorate took part. That, in what many consider the world's most mature democracy.

But American apathy is far from unique. A random sample of elections over the past few years, taken from the International Foundation for Election Systems, shows a mere 59 per cent turnout in the UK parliamentary elections in 2001 and 56 per cent in Japan in the same year. France had just 41 per cent turnout in its first-round presidential poll the following year. Russians did a little better last week, when 64 per cent of the electorate voted for president.

Taiwanese love to use the term 'vibrant democracy' to describe the island. Indeed it is vibrant, and it causes vibrations around the world, too. But is it mature? The answer is not clear.

Cross-strait relations, peace, stability, and relations with the US all play into this campaign. But the coverage is dominated by mud-slinging. Allegations of corruption and kickbacks get a lot of airtime.

Then there are allegations of wife-beating, of improper stock-market trading, of extramarital affairs and of being an altogether not-very-nice person.

This is standard fare for any campaign in this vibrant democracy. And if you ask any Taiwanese what they think of it all, they will tell you they are sick of elections.

But are they? It seems more like the freak show that people cannot turn their heads from. The trend is towards more participation with each election. People are not getting bored, at all, with the right to vote.

In the 1995 legislative elections, voter turnout was 67 per cent, edging up in 1998 to 68 per cent. In the 2000 presidential election, 70 per cent of voters cast ballots. This year, government officials are talking about as much as 80 per cent turning out to vote.

So, the Taiwanese just cannot get enough of this whole democracy thing. That makes you realise why some people are uncomfortable with it. Perhaps the anti-democrats are hoping that Taiwan democracy will hurry up and mature, so that people will stop bothering to make a choice.